Inside the influencer evolution

by Nancy Klaiman Prentice

Within the realm of marketing, the use of influencers to promote a brand has become a polarized topic.  Critics are quick to note that fraud, bribery, lack of transparency and the inability to measure results have chipped away at this golden nugget of brand opportunity. Supporters maintain that lessons learned from past mistakes have enabled this pivotal marketing tool to evolve in a productive manner.

SOCIAL MEDIA SCALE-UP

Simply put, influencer marketing can still extend the reach of a brand. This trend is highly adaptable to change and, like denim (which began as workwear and transcended to a fashion/lifestyle staple), the influencer has morphed in response to shifts in the market. According to Evan Asano, founder and CEO of influencer marketing agency Mediakix, the influencer industry is set to be at $5 to $10 billion in 2020 – up from just $500 million in 2015. Influencers are now recognized as content creators, bloggers, storytellers and/or brand ambassadors; a fresh crop of talent continues to move business forward in new dimensions across multiple platforms.

Of course, savvier audiences are demanding transparency. The social media that connects us is driving deeper engagement with the creation of communities and the concept of ‘More Together’ brought to you by Facebook Community Pages (could that Basset Hound tv spot be any sweeter?). Cultural awareness is rounding out initiatives and adding depth to our branding – with sustainability, the environment, and human rights at the forefront (rock on Greta Thunberg!) Where Influencers were conducting a monologue, we now have brand ambassadors open to having the dialogue.

LOOKING BEYOND THE LABEL

Is there a difference between an influencer and a brand ambassador? It seems the brand ambassador has become a more dimensional, accessible, and authentic version of the influencer. In the interest of time, we’ll keep the conversation current and move past the Pope and the Queen (considered the very first influencers), and beyond the pasture where the Marlboro Man– the mythical human trademark of few words–amassed $20 million for his brand.

Granted, influencer fatigue may have set in for brands that create the content endorsed by influencers or use one-off partnerships. Influencers who merely review products or model the latest style with a snapshot in their “bio” are seen as limited and somewhat obsolete. Endorsement has given way to engagement. Real content is created by the ambassador–which is often used as advertising, not the other way around. Vanity metrics (registered page views, followers, likes) have lost their luster as consumers now seek a deeper connection to the brand and its ambassador.

According to Hersh Rephun, CCO at brand consultancy Propeller 5, influencer marketing has refined itself as a model, and the shift is now toward brand-building vs. conversion. In his opinion, spokespeople who are natural fits for a brand can be organic extensions of the sales force. “In the past, many brands jumped into social media and influencers without thinking through the process and return. We now know there’s little correlation between followers and sales.”

Hersh encourages brands to hone in on their DNA and discourages them from thinking of anyone representing them as a unicorn or magical solution. “Today’s brand ambassador is someone who reflects the ideals of the brand and can convey the brand message, but isn’t necessarily selling,” shares Hersh. “They may have followers, but they project the image and genuine affection for the brand. They need the ability to thrive in a grassroots setting and connect with a live audience in a real way. It’s this connection that informs strategy, messaging and content. Whether influencer or brand ambassador, it’s about the goal, not the label. Brands that further develop their sense of self will align with the right influencer or ambassador to let their identity shine through these associations.” His takeaways: “Figure out the brand DNA and the spokespeople who are a fit; be strategic with content and choose the right platforms.”

PICKING THE PROPER PLATFORM

From social networks (Instagram, Facebook, Twitter…) to influencer marketing software (Klear, Upfluence, Pixlee, etc.), online platforms are the new billboards. Personalities are pushing out content that’s a genuine extension of their lifestyle and value system. 

Chelsie Ravenell, a men’s fashion buyer at Gwynn’s of Mt. Pleasant in South Carolina and a recognized brand ambassador with his own label, has spent decades on and off the selling floor, affording him an ability to understand trends and the shift toward transparency. Ravenell acknowledges that fashion brands including Penguin and Robert Wayne send him clothes and that liquor brands like Van Gogh vodka pay him, but he puts his own twist on how/what to wear and does only what’s natural to him vs. taking direction from corporate. His followers know him and expect real content.  

Samantha Escobar and Oji Haynes have held the title of Brand Ambassador with the Naked Retail Group – a modern turnkey solution for DTC brands that want to engage consumers via brick-and-mortar and through pop-ups. For them, the title of brand ambassador is synonymous with brand expert. Inside-out product knowledge and a genuine representation give them the authenticity to “walk the walk” vs. merely wearing or selling items within their portfolio of brands. Samantha will be assisting customers in the shop one moment, posting on social media the next. All behaviors are grounded in reality. Oji, who at this writing had become a men’s designer stylist with Bloomingdale’s, doubles down on the lifestyle-driven aspect of the new influencer by not just selling the brand but also expressing its values.

FROM ALGORITHMS TO ZEITGEIST

Clearly, the social gravitational pull toward authenticity affects Influencer marketing. In the age where organic is standard and plastic bags are illicit in many places, there are agencies to ensure what resonates is real.  Quality is a benchmark in menswear and a cloak worn by the right influencers.  Jim Tobin, president of the award-winning influencer marketing agency Carusele, validates:

**Brands and their influencers are subject to organic reach limitations (algorithms) and need an amplification strategy to get the high performing content in front of people most likely to buy.

**Programs have been designed to measure each piece of content to figure out which pieces are high performing, and which are not. 

**The good influencers have become more selective and realize that promoting products that aren’t a genuine match for their values can hurt their brand.

Tobin underscores the value of influencer marketing with the reminder, “All things being equal, someone else saying a brand is high quality is more powerful than the brand saying they are high quality. The number of minutes being spent on social media continues to grow. Until that changes, high-quality influencer marketing will drive measurable results for brands that know how to construct their programs.”

And smart brands are learning fast. Louis Vuitton is running documentary-style videos on YouTube, bringing influencers backstage for a ‘fly-on-the-wall’ viewer experience. Prada partners with an actor/activist to promote their iconic bags in a new sustainable nylon. Ralph Lauren extols American values and reinforces its DNA by featuring diverse families. Fashion brands are stepping away from the mirror, finding creative ways to use influencer marketing to lead with authenticity.

Photos of Chelsie Ravenel by Josh Garwood

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